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April 26, 2011

Book Notes - Steve Himmer ("The Bee-Loud Glade")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Steve Himmer's novel The Bee-Loud Glade is wonderfully inventive, and richly explores themes of modern addiction to technology and our culture's rejection of nature.

The Rumpus wrote of the book:

"The constant juxtaposition of technology and nature, like the cave vs. the mansion, is the most fascinating element of The Bee-Loud Glade. Not only does Himmer bring in the pseudo-realities of blog-living in comparison with the communication-free life of the hermit, but he opposes each and every piece of our technological and hyper-living with some aspect of nature or more natural living: artifcial plants vs. a garden, clothing vs. nudity, painting the horizon vs. meditating on it, and even animals on television vs. Jerome the real lion (who was released cautiously into Finch’s living space)."

In his own words, here is Steve Himmer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Bee-Loud Glade:

The Bee-Loud Glade is the story of Finch, who loses his job and finds a new one working as a decorative hermit in a billionaire's garden. It's a world removed from the familiar and the named, where the only music comes from an errant flute Finch is occasionally asked to play (badly) by his employer. He can't even sing, because one of the requirements of the job is a vow of silence. But while it's hard to think of him listening to specific artists or songs (though he does pass a long night by recalling his favorite TV theme songs), his garden is a space sculpted by human hands and the music I listened to while writing the book crept in as easily as intruders into his domain. So while there's little music in the fore of the story, it's always in the background, behind the scenes and behind the writing of those scenes, atmospheric and indispensable like birdsong and river babble. Finch's life is one that could fall apart any moment — the way most of ours are, I suppose — and music was often the thin rope that tethered his "quiet desperation" and mine to the world. Especially music that's intimate and private and quiet, inviting us to listen closely as my hermit has been called to do and as I was, I hope, in the course of telling his story.

American Music Club, "Outside This Bar"

A pivotal moment in writing The Bee-Loud Glade came when it shifted from having only a premise for propulsion to having an emotional core. Even in the earliest drafts, Finch got laid off from his job, but it happened in an unconvincing sort of way. And then I lost my own job and realized how weak my vision of his drifting was. It's the darkest part of the story and maybe the most autobiographical, and when I think of my own unemployment it's this song I hear because I played it over and over. It's angry but not angry at anything because there's no point. It's a voice that knows sooner or later the barroom will close and we'll be forced out of the dark, quiet where it's easier to wallow than face the world.

Brian Eno, Music For Airports

Airports are the ultimate liminal spaces, pure drift, and this first album in Eno's ambient series is the ultimate liminal music. It's somewhere between melody and noise, between composition and chance, between technological and organic. I listened to this often while writing, sometimes in a loop with his other ambient albums, sometimes by itself, and hours went by as easily as they can in an airport when you're suspended between one place and another. Or between one life and another, like my hermit or like someone telling a story.

Mark Eitzel, "Nothing Can Bring Me Down"

I was reluctant to include this after already using a song by American Music Club, but I couldn't leave this one out. It later became AMC's "What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn't Found In The Book Of Life," but the earlier version on Songs Of Love Live is the most fragile, honest performance I've ever heard. It's a song that hangs on by a thread, and you can hear the audience holding its breath as Eitzel strains for the words and to keep the song together. There's an almost palpable suffering shored up by sheer will in a way that reminds me of Finch's Bartlebyesque resistance to being crushed when he should have every right to give up.

Colin Hay, "Waiting For My Real Life To Begin"

The overlap with the novel is obvious, I suppose, from the title. But what I like about Hay's song (and I could have picked others by him for the same reason) is the insistence on optimism: he's waiting rather than giving up. He's looking forward without any real reason. It's where Finch finds himself, I think, in his own more melancholy way, and if I can say so without being cloyingly maudlin it's the place I wrote the book from and, really, it's where every novel is written from when there's no guarantee it will be published or noticed or even finished.

David Francey, "Paper Boy"

In the most literal way, this is a song about a first experience of work, of entering the world of adults when it is still mysterious and full of promise, and of looking back from a position of knowing work and adulthood aren't all they're cracked up to be. But the discovery of a secret world, in this case a familiar neighborhood made unfamiliar by early morning, echoes Finch's entry into his new life working for Mr. Crane and the way his wonder gets rejuvenated years after work lost its luster. And Francey has one of those enveloping, transporting voices that pulls you into a story like it could be your own.

Jack Johnson, "Upside Down"

My daughter was born while I worked on this novel, and sections were written with her in my lap or sleeping in her swing beside me. Which meant sometimes the music we listened to was hers instead of mine, but Jack Johnson's soundtrack from the Curious George movie was both of ours, kids' music and parents' music at once. It's joyful and melancholy, an optimism that is a struggle sometimes, but finds a reason for keeping on (in my case, a snoring, snoozing, babbling reason).

Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations

I love the background noise of performance, the music behind the music like Glenn Gould's breath and Keith Jarrett's mumbling and fretboard finger buzz and furniture shifting across the floor. Like my hermit I want to hear the world in overlapping layers and to shift my attention from one to the other or focus on taking in all of them at the same time. Sometimes I listen to the Goldberg Variations and try to push the piano to the background to bring the "noise" to the fore, but mostly I try to follow both piano and pianist at the same time.

Tony Moreno, "Far & Wide"

It doesn't even sound like this was meant to be heard by anyone other than Tony Moreno himself, like someone accidentally recorded him tinkering for his own ear. The listener's an interloper, one whose presence might cause the music to stop, but the performance is earthy and self-possessed and at peace with itself in such a rare way, at ease with that constant nearness to a collapse, which is maybe what Finch is trying to achieve by reshaping his life.

John Cage, "4'33""

This one's almost too obvious to include, but how can I not? So much of Finch's story is silence, or what passes for silence and turns out to be a rich world of noise that gets lost behind people talking, and who's captured that better than Cage?

John Luther Adams, Winter Music

And who has taken that awareness of the aural background and made it more fully part of the piece, breaking down boundaries between composition and location, than John Luther Adams? Winter Music is a book with a companion CD, and I suppose the book about Adams' process was as much an influence as the music itself, but his descriptions of how birdsong and ice breaking up and wind blowing through his Alaskan home find their way into the music he sends off to the world resonated so deeply with Finch's experience of being bound to the whole world despite his isolation, of a world made and remade from what's at hand or at ear whether we notice or not, and of how any sound overlaps every other. John Luther Adams takes Cage's unsilence and weaves it into the music, finding his own voice among other voices already singing around him.

Daniel Lanois, "Shine"

There's an irresistible buoyancy in this song, a bounce like joy breaking through no matter how thick a wall is built up before it. It's awed by the universe and overwhelmed the way Finch is all the time, constantly discovering the world is more complicated and compelling than he knew, and feeling lucky to be part of it.

Van Morrison, "Tupelo Honey"

I could have included any number of Van Morrison songs on this list, his earlier ones anyway, because of how often it sounds like the whole band could be overcome and the song could spin out of control. It's just barely hanging together, on the edge of not quite keeping time, and its ethereal but you can always hear the earthly touch in a way that makes me think of John Ruskin. If I were a religious person I'd call it music of the heavens made by human hands, but I'm not so I'll call it worldly music that tries to take in the whole world at once.

Poi Dog Pondering, "Bury Me Deep"

This has got to be the most cheerful song about dying ever, a celebration of decomposition and rebirth at the microorganic level. It's a song that puts us in our place as worm food and fertilizer for trees, like a musical version of Jim Crace's novel Being Dead. A song and sentiment totally at peace with the world and our place in it, something I hope Finch approaches by the end of the book, and maybe his readers, too.

Steve Himmer and The Bee-Loud Glade links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (chapter 2)
excerpt from the book (at The Nervous Breakdown)
excerpt from the book (at The Collagist)
video trailer for the book

Berkeley Beacon review
Big Other review
The Bowed Bookshelf review
Erin Reads review
Incurable Logophilia review
NewPages review
Outsider Writers Collective review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
Three Guys One Book review
What to Wear During an Orange Alert? review

Emerson College profile of the author
Fictionaut interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author
Prick of the Spindle interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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